Colombian Tribe Topples Mighty Oil Giant

U'wa girl.
(photo by Javier Vesga)

There's not much good news coming out of war-torn Colombia these days. Friday was a notable exception. With no great fanfare, Occidental Petroleum, the multinational giant that has gained infamy in environmental circles, announced at its annual shareholder meeting in Santa Monica, Calif. that it was relinquishing control of Siriri, the oil block in Colombia on the ancestral land of the U'wa people.

The official line was that after exploratory drilling came up dry last summer, Occidental geologists concluded it was not scientifically wise to carry on the project. "This was a high-risk well from a technical standpoint," said Occidental spokesman Larry Meriage.

But environmentalists had a different take. "It just shows that drilling for oil in ancestral territories of indigenous communities in a tropical rainforest region is an unviable and untenable business plan," said Michael Brune of the Rainforest Action Network.

According to one activist who has closely followed local developments, when the U'wa realized Occidental intended to proceed with the drilling, the tribe prayed for the oil to "move." Maybe the dry well was simply proof that the universe is the best arbiter in matters of such consequence.

However you spin it, this was a colossal victory for the U'wa, a tribe of just 5,000 souls, whose scrappy, grassroots struggle against Occidental began nearly a decade ago. The U'wa said the oil operation threatened the basic welfare of civilians who would be caught in the cross-fire of Colombia's civil war.

The battle over power and resources -- perpetrated by the Colombian military, leftist FARC guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers -- has ravaged any semblance of normalcy for Colombians. People are kidnapped and murdered in what amounts to a perpetual, surreal chess match. (Staking its own territorial claim in the war, the Bush Administration is pushing the U.S. Congress to authorize $98 million in military aid to defend another Occidental venture, the Caño-Limon pipeline, a private enterprise which runs through U'wa land.)

U'wa boy.
(photo by Terence Freitas)


At great odds and at great risk to their survival, the U'wa have taken a non-violent tack toward self-determination. When Occidental's plans in Siriri became clear in the early 90s, U'wa tribal leaders diligently filed lawsuits, lobbied at corporate headquarters, and mobilized peaceful blockades at well sites to block Occidental. When the magnitude of the multinational's political muscle proved insurmountable, the U'wa took their struggle to sympathetic progressive groups in United States and around the world where it galvanized an overwhelming response.

In one of the best-covered protests, demonstrators outside the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles denounced Al Gore's insensitivity to the U'wa people. At the time, Gore was a major stockholder in Occidental and the U'wa had threatened a mass suicide if the company went forward with its plan to drill.

Occidental -- which banked $14 billion in sales last year -- probably didn't lose much sleep over the bad press. After six months of drilling, the company says it decided it was no longer fiscally worthwhile to continue to explore this "wildcat well," where the likelihood of striking oil was one in 12.

We may never know why Occidental pulled its operations out of the Siriri block, but this rare, non-violent triumph of the few offers a powerful lesson to the mighty armed masses at war in Colombia (and in many places throughout the world). No matter how daunting the opponent, true victory can never be attained through bloodshed.

Gabrielle Banks is Activism Editor for AlterNet.

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